The Politics of Music and Music As Politics

On Friday night, I was doing my usual channel surfing when I came across a rebroadcast of the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. And there was Patti Smith thanking the people who stood by her all these years and singing her heart out.

You don’t see enough of her passionate music and sense of mission.

The show was so much better than the Oscars. Artists paid tribute to each other in deeply personal ways, as when Eddie Vedder offered an eloquent tribute and discussion of the art and impact of REM. Michael Stipe revealed to the crowd that his mom says REM stands for Remember Every Moment. And as a news dissector who got his start at WBCN, “The Rock of Boston,” I know how much I remember, and what the music scene has meant for my career and consciousness.

The Rock n’ Roll world, even as it was corporatized, and as its rebellious edge was dulled, always had an autonomy and attitude that often challenged big money and big companies. This year, Patti and Fred Sonic Smith’s song “The People Have The Power” was the closing anthem at the ceremony, a declaration of rock values and political concerns.

Unfortunately this great show was only shown on VH1-Classic, not the main VH1 or MTV channels, because of demographic segregation, as if younger audiences wouldn’t be interested. Rock n’ Roll went from having something to say to being something to pay, to quote Reebee Garafalo’s history.

In that, at times, glorious history, the rock world spawned so many bands and the record guys who used to care about grooming musicians. And then came that army of promo men, roadies, and crews that brought us the sounds and built the stars. Today, little is invested in career building which is why we have so many one-hit wonders.

But the Hall of Fame has become something different, a keeper of the heritage, not a sales vehicle for entertainment “products.” It honors so many originals and contributions. This past week, Al Sharpton paid tribute to his life-time guru James Brown and the clips they showed put the Academy Awards’s video tribute to shame. The Ronettes were there and Van Halen and also, for the first time, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five giving hip hop its props. Rock purists objected and there is mini controversy sparked by Roger Friedman of Fox who claims that they didn’t have the votes but were forced on the stage by Jann Wenner, a member of the Academy’s Board and publisher of Rolling Stone. The Hall of Fame denies the vote was fixed.

Personally, I am a big Flash fan and would like to think that the ABC 20/20 piece I produced on rap back in l982 featuring the Furious Five helped their band cross over nationally. It was the first such segment on a network news mag. Hip-hop deserves its due and the ceremony heard from Melle Mell whose song “The Message” was about social change before the gangsta’s and sexually obsessed adolescents took over.

So. yes, there has been a corruption of the spirit of the industry as the music world was swallowed up by the synergizers of big media whose specialty is taking the edge off and dumbing it down. When bottom line became the only line, Rock n’ Roll Radio was targeted and almost destroyed as Infinity Broadcasting merged with CBS and new “media reform” laws allowed Clear Channel to gobble up and homogenize radio and turn into a form of marketing musak.

Before my TV remote took me to the Hall of Fame show, I stopped at CURRENT TV which has a very well produced, serious and lively report of the details of the corporate corruption, payola and the like that infested the music radio world. For years it was a cesspool of payoffs and very few voices in the media exposed it. The big companies have now been forced to pay a big fine and indie music may finally get a chance to be heard.

Much of this sleazy corruption comes from all the corporate concentration in the radio world where big companies take on large debts for acquisitions and then, to make their profit margins, pursue cookie-cutter programming policies and risk adverse strategies that gut creativity and localism from the airwaves. Radio went from one of the most vital forces in broadcasting to one of the most tepid and insignificant. To get any decent programming today, we have to pay for it with satellite broadcasting. And now the two competing broadcasters in that genre want to merge with a big PR campaign that boasts of how good another big monopoly will be for listeners.

Another issue that no one at the Hall of Fame talked about was the recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board to jack up royalty rates. This will wipe out independent an internet radio stations reports the Boston Globe:

“Everything from 24-hour soul to ’80s hardcore and more can be found on websites streaming formats not available over the air. But with prohibitively high new copyright rates, announced March 2 by the federal Copyright Royalty Board, many of these varied music stations may cease to exist within months. In addition, many traditional broadcasters that extend their reach using Internet streams are saying that they, too, may give up or limit webcasting.

Several local webcasters have confirmed that they will have to shut down. ‘We’ll be out of business in a heartbeat,’ says Brandon Casci, managing partner in Somerville’s LoudCity.com?.

The artists who are supposed to benefit, as well as the listeners, may suffer, according to Bob Lyons, director of new media for radio and television at WGBH-FM (89.7), offers several streams, including all classical. ‘Particularly for small artists who do not get commercial airplay, this does not make sense,’ says Lyons. If ‘GBH, a public station, has to pay the new commercial rates for its approximately 300,000 online listeners per month, says Lyons, it would ‘affect our ability . . . to provide that service.’

‘We’re playing music that is not mainstream, that is not getting exposure any other way, so the whole rationale for these fees collapses,’ he says. ‘Ten percent of nothing is nothing.’”

Who really benefits from this? The big companies of course!

Recently I wanted to use twenty seconds of a Joe Walsh song in a film I am doing to challenge censorship on TV. The companies who own the copyright refused to be reasonable and want me to pay $10,000 to license it. Of course I couldn’t afford it, and commissioned a new song by a lesser-known band. Does this make sense? Does it benefit the artist? No way.

In Europe, artists and composers, led by musicians like Denmark’s Pia Raug and their associations lobbied the EU to protect author’s rights while the big music companies fought back with a deceptive lobbying campaign, invoking the names of well known artists who withdrew their support when they knew what was going on. The EU is passing rules to protect the rights of the creators. The companies are pissed. That’s the dividing line.

So wherever you look, culture has become a battlefield, with warring interest groups, media consolidation and battles that need fighting, so that diverse voices can be heard.

- News Dissector Danny Schechter, editor of Mediachannel.org, spent ten years as a rock n’roll radio news director and commentator. Comments to [email protected]

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